Trumpeter 1/32 F8F-1B Bearcat

KIT #: 02284
PRICE: $84.95
DECALS: Two options
REVIEWER: Tom Cleaver
NOTES: Eduard Bearcat Interior photoetch set used.


 Everyone who ever flew a Bearcat loved it.  Legendary British test pilot Captain Eric Brown recalled that when he was assigned to the Naval Air Test Center at NAS Patuxent River,  Marion Carl would do loops on takeoff, landing back on the runway out of the loop, in a Bearcat, it had that much excess power.  Brown himself couldn’t decide whether he liked the Bearcat more than the Sea Fury, but definitely considered the F8F to be the best American piston-engine fighter he ever flew.  Grumman test pilot Corky Meyer, who flew every airplane Grumman ever made from the F4F onward, liked the Bearcat best.

            As Meyer explained it to me several years ago, the Bearcat was the offspring of the marriage of a Gee Bee to a Focke-Wulf Fw-190.  Bob Hall, who designed the F8F, had come to Grumman from working with the Granville Brothers, where he had an important hand in the design of the Gee Bee racers.  As such, he was a strong advocate of putting the biggest, most powerful engine available into the smallest airframe that could carry it.  In 1943, Hall test-flew an Fw-190A-5, which he immediately fell in love with for its marvelous handling abilities.  He returned to Bethpage and wrote a memorandum to Leroy Grumman, describing an idea for a small, high-powered, highly-maneuverable fighter.  Mr. Grumman liked the idea so much it immediately became Grumman Design Number 58.

            As it turned out, Hall was pulling an idea out of the Zeitgeist.  The Fighter Desk at the Bureau of Aeronautics was staffed by former fighter pilots who had cut their teeth on airplanes like the Boeing F4B-4 - which was so maneuverable a pilot could turn it by sticking his arm out of the cockpit - and the Grumman F2F and F3F fighters.  While everyone was happy with the Hellcat, which was just embarking on its career of scything the Japanese out of the skies over the Pacific, everyone wished they were dealing with a smaller, lighter, more high-powered fighter that could take on the Japanese fighters and out-fly them.

            Hall decided to put a Pratt and Whitney R-2800, the finest radial engine ever built, into the smallest possible airframe that could carry the engine.  The G-58 was a “copy” of the Fw-190 in design philosophy, though no part of the German fighter was actually copied.  The engine was closely-cowled in the manner of the Wurger, and the airplane had a wide-track undercarriage that greatly eased carrier landings.  The new airplane also bettered the outstanding visibility of the German fighter through the use of a “bubble” canopy that was so perfectly designed it did not create drag.

            The end result was 20 percent lighter than a Hellcat, with a 30% better climb rate, and a top speed 50 mph faster, with outstanding maneuverability.  The first prototype was ordered in November 1943 flew on August 21, 1944. The XF8F-1 was the star of the fighter competition held at NAS Patuxent that October, where it outflew everything it went up against, including the Spitfire XIV and P-51H, flying rings around the captured A5M5b Zero in attendance.  Every experienced test pilot who flew it loved it.  The only design change between the prototype and the production aircraft was a dorsal fillet for increased directional stability.

            The Navy ordered 2,023 F8F-1s immediately after the competition, while the prototype underwent carrier trials in February 1945.  In March 1945 VF-18 and VF-19 were commissioned on Bearcats and underwent intensive training to prepare them for combat in the coming invasion of Japan, scheduled at that time to begin in October 1845 with the invasion of Kyushu.  Fortunately for the world and unfortunately for the Bearcat, the war came to an end while VF-19 was in transit to the Western Pacific, and the F8F just missed combat in the war it was designed for.

            The Navy canceled nearly every production contract following V-J Day, other than for the F8F-1 Bearcat and the F4U-4 Corsair.  While the numbers were cut to 1,200, the F8F was still the major Navy fighter and in the next two years it equipped no less than 24 squadrons.  In 1946, an unmodified F8F-1 set a time-to-climb record - including a takeoff run of 115 feet - getting to 10,000 feet in 94 seconds, a record that stood for ten years until it was broken by a jet fighter, which was unable to match the Bearcat's takeoff performance.  In tests with a P-80 assigned to Patuxent River in 1946, the Bearcat’s takeoff performance was such that it took off and made two firing passes on the jet before the P-80 lifted off.  However, in air-to-air combat, the writing was on the wall: the Bearcat was unable to keep the jet in its sights long enough to score a hit, and was completely outperformed in speed and climb at altitude, only besting the jet in turning and roll rate.

            The performance of the Bearcat was still so outstanding that the airplane replaced the Hellcat when the Blue Angels Air Demonstration Team was made a permanent organization in 1948, and flew with the team for two seasons until replaced by the F9F-2 Panther.

            Service pilots had not been particularly happy about the light armament, so a cannon-armed Bearcat was created with four 20 millimeter cannon instead of four 50-caliber machine guns, under the designation "F8F‑1B." These were produced in parallel with the F8F‑1, with 226 built.

            100 F8F-1Bs were provided to the French Air Force for service in Indochina in 1950, while somewhere between 100-150 F8F-1Bs were refurbished and provided to Thailand as the F8F-1D; these were in use in Thailand as late as 1964, when I saw two at Don Muang Airport.

The Bearcat Goes To War:

            In 1944, President Franklin D. Roosevelt decided that the United States would not support the post-war re-occupation of colonial empires in Asia by Great Britain, France and the Netherlands, in recognition of the fact the war had been fought to opposed Japanese imperialism, and that the United States was committed to decolonialization around the world.   Unfortunately, the death of Roosevelt put this sensible policy in limbo, since he had not communicated this to his Vice President, Harry Truman, who came under the influence of those Americans who wanted to see the United States replace the British Empire.  Had Roosevelt’s far-seeing policy been implemented, most of the conflict in the Third World of the past 60 years would have been avoided, with those countries achieving independence without having to turn to the Soviet Union for support. In Southeast Asia, some 5 million people would not have been killed, their economies would not have been wrecked, and the likely result would be a political situation not unlike what exists today after the expenditure of all the blood and treasure.  Had this happened, life in the United States today would be even more unimaginably different than would be life in Southeast Asia.  Sadly, history is filled with “what ifs” that could have led to better outcomes.

            While nearly all Southeast Asian independence movements had collaborated with the Japanese under the “Greater East Asia Co-prosperity Sphere,” which was seen as being anti-European, there was one that did not.  This was the Vietnamese independence movement led by Ho Chi Minh, known as the Viet Minh.  The Viet Minh provided intelligence information to the U.S. forces operating in southern China, such as notifications of Japanese air raids departing Hanoi for Chungking, that were of inestimable value to the USAAF in countering the Japanese.  Additionally, the Viet Minh operated with intelligence teams from the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), the forerunner of the Central Intelligence Agency.  In 1945, with the surrender of the Japanese in Indochina, Ho Chi Minh proclaimed the Independence of Vietnam as the Democratic Republic of Viet-Nam; the American Declaration of Independence was used word-for-word, with the substitution of “Vietnam” for “America.” 

            Unfortunately, with the death of Roosevelt and the focus of the United States in the Pacific on dealing with the Japanese Home Islands, the British were able to secure American acquiescence in the use of Commonwealth forces to take the surrender of Japanese forces in Southeast Asia, thus guaranteeing European colonialist domination of the region.  When the British arrived in Vietnam in the summer of 1945, they completely ignored the Vietnamese independence forces, and in fact re-armed Japanese troops who had surrendered to the Viet-Minh as “peace-keepers,” pending the arrival of French forces.                                            

            The French arrived in the fall of 1945, to find that the Vietnamese considered themselves independent of the French Empire.  By early 1946, hostilities broke out.  At the time, the United States was not prepared to support the French claim, and the French forces could only use old equipment that had been provided during the war.

            Following the outbreak of the Korean War and the domestic rise of Senator Joe McCarthy  in opposition to the Truman Administration, the argument was made by the French that they were fighting the same forces in Indochina that the United States was fighting in Korea, basing their argument on the idea that “Communism” was a monolithic worldwide movement.  With a domestic need to appear “Tough on Communism,” the Truman Administration agreed with this argument, and a Mutual Defense Assistance Agreement was signed between the United States and France on December 23, 1950, which provided for provision of additional military equipment by the United States.   

            Among the items of military equipment provided were Grumman F8F-1B fighter bombers that were now surplus to U.S. Navy requirements, which would replace the ragtag collection of aircraft including the P-63 King Cobra, the SBD Dauntless, and the Supermarine Spitfire then being used by the Armee d’ l’Air units.  The French units GC 1/8, GC 2/8, GC 2/9, and GC 1/21 used these Bearcats in the fighter‑bomber role against the Viet Minh.  With its high power, the Bearcat was extremely useful in providing air support in the narrow valleys of northern and central Vietnam, though its ordnance load was very limited, which led to the French request for a better ground support aircraft that would lead to the production of the F4U-7 Corsair.

            Following the French defeat at Dien Bien Phu in 1954, the 70 surviving Bearcats were passed to the Viet Nam Air Force when it was created in 1955.  By 1961, these aircraft were pretty much worn out, and they were then replaced by the arrival of ex-U.S. Navy A-1 Skyraiders following the decision by President Kennedy to escalate U.S. involvement in the war in Viet Nam.  Yours truly saw a few of these worn-out Bearcats at Tan Son Nhut Air Base when I first arrived Vietnam in the summer of 1963.


            The Bearcat has been popular with plastic kit manufacturers for more than 40 years.  Testors released their 1/48 F8F-2 Bearcat in 1967 and it was the standard for 1/48 kits for 30 years. Monogram released an F8F-1B in 1969 that is still accurate, though one would have to scratchbuild a cockpit and the accessories section that can be seen in the wheel well.  Frog also produced a Bearcat in the early 1970s.  Hobbycraft brought out a series of Bearcats starting in 1997 that only bested the old Testors kit by having a better cockpit, though its outline accuracy left something to be desired.  In 1/32, both Combat Models and ID Models released vacuformed kits that are primarily shells to be filled with the modeler’s scratchbuilding prowess.

            This new series of Bearcats from Trumpeter - which includes the F8F-1, F8F-1B and F8f-2 - beats them all. This F8F-1B kit has  366 parts on 11 trees, with two additional trees in clear plastic, rubber main gear tires and photo-etched that includes  an instrument panel face and seatbelt and shoulder harness.  This last bit is best replaced with the Eduard photoetch US seatbelts, which are far easier to use and more realistic in their final look, while the Eduard Bearcat interior set brings great detail to the rest of the cockpit. 

            Decals are provided for one French Air Force F8F-1B and one Thai Air Force F8F-1D, both painted in Glossy Sea Blue.


            In terms of kit design, the model presents no construction difficulties.  The various panels that can be displayed open also can be displayed closed without any pushing and shoving to get them into position.  The separate controls will fit in the neutral position for ailerons and elevators and the up position for the flaps, though it is not difficult to modify the attachments to display them more dynamically if one wishes.  The various panels for the accessories section and the gun bays will allow a modeler who wants to detail these areas to show them off, while what is there in the box for these sections is a very good starting place for super-detailing.  The cowling, which finally has the accurate shape for the Bearcat, is molded clear and could be left such to display the engine.

            The engine provides the parts to do both the R-2800-34W that the F8F-1 used, and the R-2800-30W used by the F-8F-1B and the R-2800-57C used by the F8F-2.  Trumpeter has been doing the R-2800 for quite awhile now, and the engine makes up so nice that it is a model itself.

            The accessories section, which is seen through the open gear wells, is well-appointed and can be assembled right out of the box to “look right”, though a modeler could include electrical wiring and such.

            It is important here to note that Trumpeter’s painting instructions are incorrect.  I checked with my old friend Corky Meyer, who has been around more Bearcats than anyone else alive.  He told me that the interior of the cowling and the accessory section is Yellow Zinc Chromate, while the gear wells in the wing, the gear and the gear doors, were all Glossy Sea Blue.

            The cockpit has nice detail, but using the instrument panels and seatbelts from the Eduard interior set will vastly improve the final look, which I did.  I think the photoetch instrument panel with the filmstrip instrument faces is more accurate looking than the clear plastic parts.

            I assembled the wings to the fuselage halves before further assembling the fuselage, so that I could work on the joint from both sides of the fuselage part, which insured a good fit without having to use any gap-filler.

            The wings can be assembled folded, and Trumpeter provides all the parts necessary to do this and have a good-looking result.

            I elected to assemble the control surfaces in the neutral position since I know the control stick is spring-loaded on a Bearcat and this is the position they normally take when the airplane is parked on the ground.



            The model was painted with an overall coat of Xtracrylix “Glossy Sea Blue,” which I think is the best GSB out there in terms of color.  When that was dry, I applied a coat of Xtracrylix Gloss Varnish.


            I went through the decal dungeon and found better roundels and a better tricolor, which I used with the kit decals for the squadron and aircraft markings.  SPADA makes a decal sheet for French Bearcats that I would recommend as they are far better than what comes with the kit.


            Since these airplanes were used in the tropics, the Glossy Sea Blue paint did weather, with the paint fading and going “flat” in areas exposed to the sun.  I recreated this by adding in Xtracrylix “Intermediate Blue” to the “Glossy Sea Blue” and blotching various areas, followed by an overall coat of Xtracrylix Flat Varnish, which dries in a “not quite flat” finish, to which I then added Tamiya “Flat Base” and blotched the overall surface to add to the weathering.  I also added exhaust stains with Tamiya “Smoke.”  Looking at photos of Bearcats in Indochina in the Google Life Magazine collection, one can see Bearcats in the same unit that vary in finish from those that are still relatively glossy to airplanes that are dead flat and faded, so there is lots of room for a modeler’s creativity here.

            I unmasked the canopy, and attached the landing gear and propeller. I posed the canopy in the open position.

            I decided not to attach the drop tank, since most photos of Bearcats in Indochina do not show it used.  The kit lacks sway braces for the bombs, so I used Evergreen strip to make replacements, and used rockets from the Trumpeter Hellcat kit, since they look better than what comes with the kit.


            Trumpeter’s Bearcat series are the best Bearcats available in any scale. The cockpit will look good out of the box using the photoetch seatbelts provided.  I would personally use the SPADA decal sheet for French Bearcats if I did this again.  There is also a decal sheet available from a Thai source that provides some very colorful Thai Bearcats.  The kit presents no problems in assembly and looks good when completed.

Thanks to Stevens International for the review kit.  Thanks to Eduard for the photoetch interior set.

Tom Cleaver

February 2010

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